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Gang of Four: Auckland, February 24
Gang of Four: Entertainment! (EMI)

Seeing the Gang of Four in Auckland inspired Porky to seek out what is generally regarded as a post-punk classic, Entertainment! Luckily, they had in Real Groovy for $15.

We’ll come back to this seminal work soon but first a few words on the Gang’s show in Auckland, their first-ever in New Zealand, despite forming in 1977.

The Leeds outfit retains its two lynchpins, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, with Thomas McNeice now on bass and Mark Heaney on drums. It’s always a curiosity to see ageing, founder members with younger turks replacing former members (Hugo Burnham was involved up to 2006, Dave Allen until 2008) but it worked, the energy of McNeice being matched by the effusive King.

This show was booked some time ago, but it was overtaken by the massive earthquake in Christchurch, an event mentioned by King, who offered his condolences to the families of the victims and everyone affected by the disaster. I had the flights from Wellington, the accommodation and the tickets but, working in the media, I was asked to work extra hours, so I headed north a little guilty at not being able to help out, though I was on board soon after returning. The writer of this great blog had it far worse though:

http://spatulaforum.blogspot.com/2011/02/concert-review-gang-of-four-auckland.html

Jon King (picture; Craig Stephen)

Gang of Four focused largely on the classics, the new album Content barely getting a look in – and while I have heard of poor reviews, it would have been good to hear some of the new material. Of what was played, the rock-esque You’ll Never Pay for The Farm, sounded as brilliant as it did when they guested on the David Letterman Show.

Bands who do get to New Zealand (a reasonable number surprisingly given its isolation, small population and lack of a decent mid-sized venue in the capital Wellington) usually give of their best, I assume because they realise fans here get few opportunities to see their favourites in action. And there’s no doubt that the Gang were on form at Mt Eden, doing a double-encore and playing for some time. The above link gives more detail; suffice to say with King’s madcap lunacy and Gill’s faux-glumness it was an entertaining night, which brings me to the 1979 album that made their name.

Looking back now, with the likes of Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and REM’s Michael Stipe both espousing its virtues on the reissued version’s sleeve notes, and so many new bands such as the Futureheads and Bloc Party clearly inspired by them, it’s hard to explain what a groundbreaking album this was on its initial release. By 1978, music in Britain was mourning/ recovering from the end of punk, a movement that was the equivalent of a molotov cocktail thrown in a shopping mall.

With its razor-sharp rhythms that seemed influenced by funk as much as punk, and it’s literate and incisive lyrical form, Entertainment! set the tone for a burgeoning post-punk movement that would take over the punk flag. The Gang are name-checked all over the shop now, but, despite fawning reviews of the album, the Gang of Four would never go higher than 58 in the UK singles charts (At Home He’s A Tourist). The respect of John Peel and topping the Independent charts partially made up for their failure to crack the mainstream.

Entertainment! begins with Ether, which heralded their unique vocal style, King’s obscure lines followed by some crisp words by Gill about the situation in Northern Ireland (eg “Censor six counties news”). Such a vocal delivery was typical of the band: King was the more illuminated of the two, while Gill was the hectoring chap at the back.

They wrote about politics; eg the alienation of work in Natural’s Not In It, and how history is rewritten to create heroes (Not Great Men); but the quartet were also intrigued by the politics of the individual. In 5.45, King explores the notion of war coverage and viewing it on the news at home (ITV formerly broadcast their tea-time bulletins at that time): “How can I sit and eat my tea, with all the blood flowing from the television.”

There were even songs about love, but with a differing perspective from the usual boy-meets-girl take in pop music … “Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax, and that’s something I don’t want to catch” (Anthrax) and “Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you, but I know it’s only lust,” (Damaged Goods).

The CD version I have is the 1995 reissue with 1980’s Yellow EP – Outside the Trains Don’t Run On Time, He’d Send in the Army, It’s Her Factory but missing a revised Armalite Rifle that apparently was included on this reissue. The most recent reissue, from 2005 on Rhino, has four further additional tracks – alternate versions of Contract and Guns Before Butter and two live tracks, Blood Free and Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane.

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